FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Before You Begin Your Career as a Teacher

Dear Ms. Bush,

I’ve read recently that you will soon be teaching in an urban, Washington, D.C. elementary school. As you begin your career there are a few things that I would like you to consider.

I’m sure that you are entering the profession with the highest of expectations for the children who will be under your care in the coming years, that you are not someone who might fall prey to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” If possible, though, please take a few moments to think about just what it means to have high or low expectations for your students.

I ask you to do so because I believe that much of the so-called educational reform mandated in the name of “high” expectations truly reflects very low expectations of the intellectual capacities and learning potential of children ­ most specifically, poor children in urban schools who are usually not white and who often don’t speak English as their first language.

This conclusion might seem counter-intuitive. After all, your father claims that No Child Left Behind is closing the achievement gap. He claims that test scores are rising, that more kids are reading at a higher level. I see that achievement gap differently ­ when teaching and textbooks mirror the tests, scores indeed will rise. In the eyes of some people, high expectations for students are being met. I see the high expectations of the testing/publishing industrial complex being met as their profits soar, and the high expectations of pundits being met as their pockets fatten.

Let’s say that I’m wrong, though, and children are indeed learning more in this brave new world of education. We still cannot say that high expectations are being met without taking into account some of the other effects of NCLB on classrooms. A few examples include: students reading fewer actual books in school, far less time being spent on social studies, science, arts education, or any other activity that does not fall within the realm of concepts-to-be-tested.

Many pro-NCLB people might respond to these examples with “So what?” They may not care that children are not getting arts education, music, foreign language, social studies, etc., because those test scores are going up and the achievement gap is “narrowing.” They may not worry that kids are reading fewer books, because at least the kids are reading the sanitized, annotated, offense-less stories in their new standardized, mandated, and not-that-interesting literacy curriculum.

They would say that “those” kids are learning to read, and until they learn to read, nothing else matters except learning to read. The underlying assumption behind this attitude is that until they learn to read, “those” children really are not capable of learning anything else. And, they believe the only way that “those” kids can handle learning to read is by cutting reading down to essentially a technical activity, devoid of meaning and joy. It is incomprehensible that learning to read might come through the arts, through music, through social studies ­ through, as William Ayers writes, the act of learning to “take the world in one’s hands” and run with it.

Incomprehensible, unless it is their own children, in which case these NCLB proponents would never tolerate such a curriculum. I can already hear the outcry when Open Court or any other form of test-driven instruction is mandated at Sidwell Friends or the Langley School (two “prestigious” DC area private schools that I’m sure are popular with your father’s peer group): “But our children are not being challenged!” Their children can, of course, handle the challenge, “those” other kids cannot.

Thus, in the name of overcoming soft bigotry and building high expectations, poor children are pinned with the destructive and meaningless “at-risk” label, and then communicated the lowest of expectations: that until they can segment words into phonemes, know all the short and long vowel sounds, and can score above the 50th percentile on the test, that they don’t deserve and can’t handle anything more.

Do not misunderstand me, Ms. Bush. I am not advocating that you give your students a watered-down, feel-good curriculum. Of course you will teach them to read, you will help them learn the skills necessary to pass through any gate that crosses their path. You will help them to succeed, and then to reach beyond.

In order to do so, you will need to develop your own capacity as a knowledgeable teacher, capable of making her own teaching decisions based on understanding of both subject-matter and students. And, you will not learn this from a day-in-day-out adherence to directions in the scripted teaching manuals that are so often mandated in urban schools. As one teacher I know said, teaching under these conditions is “like a sweatshop.”

I would hope that you don’t work in the sweatshop teaching environment where kids get their education in bite-sized concepts; where teachers are told which words of encouragement they can and cannot use, which bits they can dole out and when, and which sanctions will be slapped upon them if they don’t follow the compulsory, prescribed practices.

I hope for more for both you and your students.

I hope that you can know each other as full and complete human beings, not as numbers, statistics, or labels.

I hope that you can create space in your classroom for dialogue, for disagreement. That you foster an environment in which both you and your students are able to recognize errors and shortcomings, and learn and grow from them. A space that is not autocratically-ruled, but one in which all members of the community feel that their voice is heard, that their opinions can be trusted, that they play a role in decision-making.

Finally, I hope that, in the words of bell hooks, you are able to educate in such a way that you “draw out all that is exquisite” in your classroom. This is a collective endeavor ­ involving you and your colleagues, your students, their families, and community. You must listen to them, and you must not alienate them. You must harness all of this knowledge and power in order to truly create change.

This is what it means to have high expectations. This is what it means to teach.

Sincerely,
ELISA SALASIN

cc: George W. Bush, White House

ELISA SALASIN is a teacher educator in Berkeley, California. She can be reached at elisasalasin@yahoo.com.

More articles by:

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael Duggin
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail